Review of Shi’ism and Politics in the Middle East

Harold Rhode: Review of Shi’ism and Politics in the Middle East by Laurence Louër
Gatestone Institute

Shi’ism and Politics in the Middle East
by Laurence Louër
Translated from the French by John King
(London: Hurst, 2012), 176 pages
Reviewed by Harold Rhode
Senior Fellow, Gatestone Institute
Retired Analyst, Office of the US Secretary of Defense, Middle East

The author of this book, Laurence Louër, has clearly spent many years trying to understand how the Shi’ite world functions. Louër is affiliated with the Centre for International Studies and Research in Paris and served as a permanent consultant for the Direction of Prospective (DP) of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs between 2004 and 2009. Since 2006, she has been editor of Critique international.

The importance of this volume is that it explains Islam from a Shi’ite perspective, including the political and religious underpinnings and manifestations of modern-day Shi’ism.

As such, this is a rare piece of scholarship because, historically, almost everything written about Islam been through the prism of the Sunni narrative. Louër’s work, therefore, is especially valuable for those who seek to understand the Shi’ite mindset. To be sure, that worldview is very different from that of the Sunnis, the Muslims who most non-Muslims encounter.

Sunnis constitute up to 85 percent of the world Muslim population, which today stands at some 1.4 billion. In Western universities, Shi’ism is invariably taught as heterodox—not the true Islam. Clearly, from a Shi’ite point of view, nothing could be further from the truth. Shi’ites believe that their brand of Islam represents the only true Islam, and that Sunni Islam is actually a perversion of what the Muslim prophet Muhammad, his family, and his followers had originally intended. For those who choose to delve into Shi’ism—especially those who have already learned about Sunnism—one cannot but be struck by the idea that Sunni and Shi’ite Islam are almost two separate religions.

Both call their god “Allah” and both accept Muhammad as his messenger. Both Shi’ites and Sunnis believe that they have an obligation to make the pilgrimage to Mecca once in their lifetimes, and both believe that the Quran is divine. But that seems to be almost all they have in common.

The Sunni and Shi’ite narratives are completely different, beginning with the death of their prophet more than 1,400 (solar) years ago. Western policymakers usually have a jaded view of Shi’ism, either because they have learned about Islam from the Sunni perspective, or because their Sunni governmental interlocutors in Islamic countries have filled them with the contempt and even the hatred that these Sunni leaders themselves feel towards the Shi’ites.

Paradoxically, one might compare the West’s perception of the two Shi’ite-dominated States—Iran and Iraq—with its view of Israel. Because nearly every Muslim country is ruled by Sunnis, policymakers dealing with the Middle East quickly realize that their opportunities for advancement will be greater if they accept the Sunni version of events. Being labeled “pro-Shi’ite” could limit one’s career prospects in much the same way that foreign service officials known to be pro-Israel also suffer.

So what is Shi’ism, and how does it differ from Sunnism? Today’s Shi’ism has a clerical hierarchy, something absent in the Sunni world. Louër explains how one rises within the Shi’ite clerical establishment, which is largely a meritocracy.

However, since the foundation of the Islamic Republic of Iran, it has become highly politicized, which of course has cast doubt upon the theological credentials of its members.

Traditionally—especially before the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini—the vast majority of Shi’ite clerics have refrained from engaging in political activity. The true ruler of the Muslims, they claim, is the Twelfth Imam—a direct descendent of Muhammad, who disappeared in 973. This Imam is a messiah-like figure, who, the Shi’ites believe, will eventually return and rule the world. Until then, the Shi’ite clerics believe that their mission is to protect their flock (i.e., the Shi’ite masses) and to look out for its spiritual needs. In terms of politics, the most senior clerics saw their role as an advisory one—especially in Iran, the only Shi’ite-ruled country until Iraq’s liberation.

Outside of Iran, the Shi’ites suffered discrimination at the hands of the Sunnis, who looked down on them for religious-doctrinal, economic, and political reasons.
Some, most notably the Wahhabi Sunni regimes of the Persian Gulf, considered the Shi’ites renegades or apostates who deserved death. Whatever the case, the Shi’ite narrative in the Muslim world was very similar to the Jewish narrative of European history: Shi’ites can easily rattle off a litany of times the Sunnis oppressed and massacred them. Moreover, like the Jews in Europe, they faced glass ceilings beyond which they could not advance in society—most notably in the government sector and the military.

One of the major changes since the liberation of Iraq is that there is now no limitation on the advancement of Shi’ites, whether in the spheres of economics, politics, or service in the armed forces. In that sense, the removal of Saddam Hussein brought about the liberation of the Shi’ites, who had had no political power for more than a millennium in what is today Iraq.

Louër describes how political change has affected the religious establishments of Iran and Iraq, and how this has affected Shi’ites in other parts of the world. Before the last century, most Shi’ites were poor and downtrodden. But in the past 100 years, they have moved into the middle and upper classes. The Shi’ite religious establishment has stood at the forefront of developing a new “Shi’ite Contentiousness/Awakening” [ad-Damir ash-Shi’i] after centuries of Sunni domination, whether in Iraq or other countries with large Shi’ite populations such as Lebanon, Bahrain, and the oil-rich eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia.

At the same time, however, these newly educated and prosperous Shi’ites have no longer been willing to play a subservient role to their religious establishment.
Interestingly, in the past few decades, some Shi’ites have even developed an anti-clerical worldview—a phenomenon described by Louër.

It should be noted that Louër’s book was first published in French in 2008; the English translation only appeared in 2012. As a result, it does not deal with the Sunni–Shi’ite war in Syria. Despite the numerous differences among the Shi’ites described in detail in the book, in Syria the Shi’ites and other non-Sunni religious-political groups have largely coalesced against the various Sunni (but non-Kurdish) groups. Experience has taught them to be wary of Sunnis on the warpath, because, despite the differences between the various Sunni groups, they have historically had the confidence to collectively take out their wrath on the non-Sunnis. As a result, the Shi’ites, the largest non-Sunni group in the region, have suffered.

Syria itself is an interesting case. Until 1969, it was dominated by the Sunnis, who at best had a noblesse oblige attitude toward the non-Sunnis and non-Arabic speaking peoples in that country. Though few Shi’ites live there, one of today’s most important Shi’ite pilgrimage sites is just outside Damascus. It is the grave of Zeinab, the daughter of ‘Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law. The ‘Alawites took power in Syria in 1969. Long persecuted by the Sunni majority (the Sunnis called them ‘abid [slaves]), the ‘Alawites looked for allies who could grant them some sort of Islamic legitimacy. This was difficult because the ‘Alawites believe that Ali was a deity—somewhat like a Jesus figure—which is anathema both to Sunnis and Shi’ites.

The Lebanese Shi’ite clerical leaders made a deal with the Alawites: In return for letting the Shi’ites develop the shrine of Zeinab as a pilgrimage site,(See Note # 1 below.) the Shi’ites would grant the ‘Alawites the status of being an offshoot of Shi’ism, and thereby of being Muslims. (See Note #2 below.) In Syria, the source of political legitimacy is Islam and therefore a non-Muslim cannot rule.

But even this tenuous Shi’ite acceptance was not enough to comfort the ‘Alawites. This was clear because when Israel and Syria sat down to talk peace in the 1990s,the ‘Alawites sent Sunnis to represent Syria. They did this because the ‘Alawite rulers wanted to make sure that if anything came out of these talks, they—the ‘Alawites—would not shoulder the blame for any concessions that might be made
to (non-Muslim) Israel. No wonder these talks had no chance for success.

So how does all of the above influence what amounts to today’s Arab Sunni-vs.-everyone-else war in Syria? That war has succeeded in uniting the entire Shi’ite
world on the side of the ‘Alawites: Iran, the Lebanese Shi’ites, and reluctantly the Shi’ite-majority Iraq —which would much rather deal with its own internal
problems. Throughout their history, when not occupied with Sunni attempts to keep them down, Shi’ites have engaged in lively and passionate disputes among
themselves. These disputes were most often intellectual and political; Shi’ites rarely killed each other over religious differences. But when much of the more powerful Sunni world has gone on the warpath against the Shi’ites and their ‘Alawite offshoots, as is the case today in Syria, the Shi’ites tend to put aside their differences and unite against these oppressors.

As described so well in the book, when and if this war subsides (and at present there does not seem to be an end in sight), we can expect the Shi’ites to go back to their internal squabbles.

What about the relationship between the Shi’ite clerical establishments in Iran and Iraq? As Louër describes in detail, as long as Iraq was ruled by Sunni Saddam Hussein, the Iranian clerical establishment basically replaced the seminaries in Najaf (Iraq) as the most important centers of learning in the Shi’ite world.

But once Iraq was liberated, Najaf could again attract Shi’ites from throughout the world to come and study, and its leaders could and did vie for power and financial control of much of the Shi’ite world. As such, the Iranian government suddenly had powerful rivals within the Shi’ite world with whom they did not have to contend when Saddam was still in power.

What ensued was the “dance” between the clerics of Iraq, lead by Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the preeminent cleric in the Shi’ite world who lived in Najaf. Though himself an Iranian, Sistani strongly opposed the Iranian government’s concept of the rule of the jurisprudent [walayat al-faqih]. He viewed the role of the clerics as both tending to the spiritual needs of his people as well as defending them politically.

As Louër states, Sistani also has made clear that the political leader of the country must not be a cleric. This is largely because he believes that if religious and political authority are vested in the political leader, Islam and the clerics will be blamed for the inevitable mistakes that that political leader would make. That is the case in Iran, which is why some Iranians are attracted to non-Islamic religions.

How the Iraq–Iran Shi’ite clerical dance will play itself out is anyone’s guess, but if there is a regime change in Iran, it would not be surprising if the Iraqi Shi’ite religious establishments, which have managed to maintain quite a bit of independence from Iranian government domination, would again become the most important center of Shi’ite religious and political thought.

Even before Iraq’s liberation, Tehran realized that Iraq was a political “can of worms.” Iran has therefore gone out of its way to demonstrate largesse to the various Shi’ite political and religious factions in that country.

Thus, at any particular moment, the Iranians, through their support, hope to have at least some sway over whatever Shi’ite group might come to power. Iran, therefore, supports all Shi’ites in Iraq—so it has influence over whichever Shi’ite faction there might dominate.

Sadly, much of the political establishment in the West does not understand the relationship between Iran and Iraq. The result is that when Western government
officials want to support a particular Shi’ite Iraqi official, they overlook that official’s connections with Iran. And when Western officials oppose a particular
Shi’ite leader, they claim that he is an Iranian agent. Both are true, and both are false. This is because by definition, all Iraqi Shi’ite leaders have some connection with Iran, and will have a connection, no matter who rules Iran—be it the Islamic authorities or a secular-oriented political leader who might come to power after regime change in Iran. Almost all of the parents and grandparents of today’s Iraqi political and religious Shi’ite leaders had close—and sometimes very close—relationships with the Shah, and benefited from his generosity. Western officials would do well to understand that “dance” between Iranian and Iraqi Shi’ites instead of calling politicians Iranian agents. In some sense, they all are, and they all are not.

The Iranian and Iraqi Shi’ites are locked in an embrace from which they cannot disengage. That does not mean that they love each other. This is clear from the Iranian and Iraqi proverbs used to describe one another. Iranians refer to Arabs—whether Sunni or Shi’ite—as lizard- and rodent-eating nomads [moosh-khor or marmoolak-khor]. The Iraqi Shi’ites return the “compliment,” saying: “If you break open the bone of a Persian, shit comes out” [idha tiksar ‘admu, titla’ khara.]

The Iranian–Iraqi Shi’ite relationship is therefore highly complicated and nuanced. Few Western or Israeli officials are prepared to spend the time or make the effort to understand these nuances.

Louër goes to great lengths to demonstrate how local political problems often trump pan-Shi’ite solidarity. This is certainly true regarding Lebanon and Bahrain, and, to a lesser extent, among the Shi’ites in the eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia. Most of these Shi’ites resent Iranian-government interference in their affairs, because they realize that the Iranian government is much more interested in using them as pawns than in addressing their plight. Again, so many Western diplomats have a tendency to accept at face value the contentions of the Sunni Arab rulers of the Persian Gulf who claim that Shi’ite unrest in their countries is nothing more than Iranian instigation. Yes, the Iranians might be involved in some cases, but by and large, the Arab rulers in the Gulf treat their Shi’ites very poorly. These rulers know how easy it is to bamboozle their Western colleagues, and actually take great pleasure in doing so. (See note # 3 below.) But Westerners usually do not realize that they are being duped and usually do not have either the will or the knowledge to dig deeper.

The predicament of Shi’ism and Shi’ite leaders is intriguing. Until oil and gas discoveries and alternate sources of energy marginalize the Persian Gulf, it is
imperative that we understand the Shi’ites, their political internecine struggles, and their eternal war with the Sunnis. It is essential that we in the West take the time to learn about the cultures and history of the peoples of this strategically critical region of the world. As far as the Shi’ites are concerned, Louër’s book helps fill a lacuna in the literature. If her work has any real drawback, it is only that it is extremely detailed and novices might find it difficult to follow the political and philosophical changes of the various clerics she studies. Still, this book should be seen as required reading for anyone dealing with Iran, Iraq, and Bahrain—where the Shi’ites constitute the majority of the population—and in other countries with Shi’ite minorities such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Pakistan, and especially Lebanon, which now has a Shi’ite plurality. It would certainly behoove Western policymakers and others who deal with Shi’ites to read Louër very carefully. In so doing, they would be less inclined to make decisions based on the wishful thinking and superficiality that has become so prevalent.

1 As Louër notes, developing this site enhanced the religious and political prestige of Lebanon’s Shi’ite clerics.
2 Interestingly, the Alawites also approached the Maronite Church at one point in order to be accepted into the religion. Like Christians, Alawites believe in a trinity—God, a holy-ghost like figure, and ‘Ali. ‘Alawites also have celebrations similar to Christmas and
3 In private, government officials from these countries often laugh among themselves at just how easy it is to make Western officials believe what Arab Sunni Gulf leaders feed them.

Categories: Ethnic Cleansing

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